Gastón ESPINOSA. Latino Pentecostals in America: Faith and Politics in Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 505. $35 hc. ISBN 978-0-674-7288-75. Reviewed by Oswald John NIRA, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, TX 78207.
Latino Pentecostals in America reveals, comprehensively, the rich history of Latino/a Assembly of God in the United States, the influential impact of this community on past and contemporary religious, political and social issues, and the vibrant leaders—men and women—that have led this community for over a hundred years. Although categorized as history, this work claims current relevance and importance. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center track the movement of Hispanic/Latino Catholics to evangelical or born-again Christian traditions, and as USA religious scholars well know, this movement is significant. According to this research, in 2013 55% of USA Hispanics/Latinos identified as Catholic; in 2010 67% of USA Hispanic/Latinos identified as Catholic. This 12% movement from Catholicism represents a gain of 22%for Protestant traditions (this number includes 16%of adherents who identify as born-again or evangelical). Much of this movement by Latino/a Catholics is oriented towards Latino/a Assembly of God communities; Espinosa documents data that “Latino Assembly of God is the largest Latino Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal denomination in the United States and the second largest in Puerto Rico.” Additionally, Latina Assembly of God women outnumber all mainline Protestant communities who minister to Latino/a communities (pg. 3).
Espinosa meticulously recounts the long and on-going tensions between Latino/a Pentecostals and Catholics; these tensions may have an eye-opening effect on readers. Pentecostals criticize Catholics for a faith that is centered on Church ritual, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the sacraments and the Pope. “I was a strong Catholic for 40 years. I worshipped images and prayed to the saints and lit candles, but I never gave up sin until the day that they (Pentecostals) told me about Christ according to Acts 4:11-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:17. Christ made me a new man,” testified José Marez (pg. 148). Transformation in Christ, and relationship with the Son of God, are key components to the conversion of Catholics to Assembly of God communities.
Among the top reasons for Catholics converting to Pentecostal faith communities: “…they wanted a more direct personal experience with God; personal evangelism and testimony of a family or friend; a miracle they reportedly personally saw, heard about or experienced; [or] a deep personal crisis” (pg. 367-368). Historically, these conversions raised tensions within Catholic communities, particularly as Catholic adherents experienced how Assembly of God members taught with conviction and keen knowledge of the Bible. Catholic priests and faithful oftentimes would counter Pentecostal proselytism with open display of Our Lady of Guadalupe and religious processions through community streets, prominently displaying the Crucifix. Catholic aggression towards Pentecostal faithful is also documented; verbal mocking and rock throwing made up some of this violence, but there were also documented martyrs in New Mexico and Puerto Rico, quickly denounced by Catholic leaders at the time (pgs. 150 and 221).
The current election season, fielding two substantial Latino candidates and one African-American candidate from the Assembly of God community, sharpened my attention to Espinosa’s review of the Latino Pentecostal impact on national politics. Chapter 10, “And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” reviews women in Assembly of God ministry, and includes detailed data on the swing-vote constituency of Assembly of God voters in the 2008 and 2012 national elections. In addition, Espinosa recounts the impact of Reies López Tijerina leadership role in Latino Civil Rights in the 1950s-60s, in vivid detail, including his visionary leadership as the origin of the idea for the Poor People’s March in 1968 (attributed by most historians to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and his Catholic roots.
I highly recommend this text for Latino/a US Religious Experience courses, as well as Latino/a Catholic Spirituality studies. With the continuing growth of Latino/as in the United States, projected to number 128 million (30%) by 2050, Espinosa’s work is a necessary study of the entire USA religious populace. The text includes 50 pages of detailed notes, and a 15 page index, always very helpful aids for scholars and students.